The history of cricket
This ‘gentleman’s game’ is the second-most popular game in the world, after soccer
CRICKET has been played for centuries. Historians believe it started as a child’s game in the 13th century in The Weald, a woodland area in southeast England. The children of farmers and shepherds likely played it in forest clearings and on land grazed by sheep.
Other historians believe cricket and baseball developed from stoolball, another game played in the same area of England. It’s still played today, especially by women, and started with milk maids using their milking stools as a wicket and their wooden milk bowl as a bat.
The earliest written reference to cricket is found in the documents of a 1598 court case about a land dispute. Coroner John Derrick (59) testified in court that he and his friends had played “creckett” in an open lot in Guildford, Surrey, 50 years earlier. The sport probably developed from a simple game where one player tossed a ball or a piece of wood at another player, who then tried hitting it with a stick (later a bat). Historians aren’t sure when exactly cricket developed to the point where the batsman also had to protect a target (the wickets) from the bowler. At some stage players started scoring points according to the distance the batsman could hit the ball. Helpers (fielders) then started featuring in the game that initially only had two players. This turned it into a team sport. In the 1600s cricket became increasingly popular – not only among boys, but also adult men. It became an organised sport. The first recorded cricket match with 11 players a side was played in 1697 in Sussex. That’s probably when cricket became popular with spectators.
When the game first included a target, boys would probably just stand in front of a tree stump or wicket gate – a small door that’s part of a larger door such as the huge double doors of a castle. Another name for the wicket is “stumps”.
The wicket or stumps are three wooden sticks stuck into the ground vertically. They have grooves on the top end on which the bails (which might originally have been stones or sticks) rest horizontally. When the ball hits the stumps, the bails fall off. This is probably why bails were added in the first place as this makes it easier to tell when the ball has hit the stumps and the batsman is out. There used to be only two stumps but in the 1770s a third stump was added. The length of the pitch – the area between the two sets of wickets
– was standardised to 22 yards (20,12m) as far back as 1706.
Early on the “ball” was probably just a stone or a pine cone. Today balls are made of cork covered in leather. Since 1774 the weight of the ball has been standardised at between 156g and 163g. Men and boys above the age of 13 play with this ball, and lighter balls are used by women and younger children.
The ball is traditionally red, making it easier to see, but these days white and pink balls are used as these colours are more visible at night under floodlights.
The earliest bats were sticks shaped more like hockey sticks. This was because for centuries the ball was rolled on the ground like in bowls instead of pitched. Balls were first pitched in the 1760s by throwing them underarm.
The story goes that round-arm bowling – in which the arm is held at a 90° angle away from the body – was invented in the 1820s by John Willes, whose sister, Christiana, had to bowl this way to him because her wide dress got in the way.
This developed into overarm bowling – which allows the bowler to lift his hand above shoulder height – and spin bowling.
These new bowling techniques made it necessary for the bat to evolve to enable the batsman to return a ball with different strokes, such as a cut, a flick or a drive. To enable this, the bat’s handle was shortened and the bat itself was straightened and flattened.
By the 18th century, cricket had started spreading from the southeast of England to other parts of the country. Women’s
cricket dates to 1745, when the first women’s match was recorded in Surrey.
Because so many people were playing the game, it became necessary to standardise the rules. In 1744 the Laws of Cricket were written down. By 1774 these rules needed to be amended to address new developments such as leg before wicket (lbw), the third stump and the maximum width of the bat.
These codes were formalised by the Star and Garter Club, whose members later, in 1787, founded the famous Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s in London. The MCC became the guardian of the laws and to this day is the highest authority when it comes to amending the rules.
Cricket spread overseas when it was played in the first English colonies in North America. Canada’s Toronto Cricket Club and the St George Cricket Club in New York in the US played the first international cricket match in 1844. Toronto won by 23 runs. But the popularity of baseball as a summer sport later eclipsed cricket in North America. Cricket spread to the British colonies in the West Indian Islands, the Indian subcontinent and Australia in the 18th century. It reached New Zealand and South Africa early in the 19th century. Cricket was traditionally a slow game, stretching over days. But in the 20th century this changed with the introduction of one-day cricket (matches with a limited number of overs, usually 50 each). T20 cricket is even faster, with a maximum of 20 overs. These modern forms have boosted the popularity of the game significantly. To think, cricket was once just an informal child’s game. Now it draws crowds of thousands and is broadcast all over the world.
FAR LEFT: This 1743 painting Cricket in the Artillery Ground by Francis Hayman shows men playing cricket on any open field they can find. The bat is a thin, curved club like a hockey stick and the bowler rolls the ball along the ground. The scorer sits in the foreground keeping score by cutting notches in a stick. LEFT: The world’s oldest cricket bat dates from 1729.
LEFT: This painting by Francis Cotes, The Young Cricketer (1768), shows that the wicket used to be two sticks with a third balanced across it. BELOW: This exhibit shows how the cricket bat developed through the ages to adapt to changing bowling techniques.
Cricket balls are traditionally red. These days white and pink balls are used in day-night matches because they’re more visible under floodlights.